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Report Paints Bleak Picture of Life on Welfare : Mother's Struggle Typifies Plight of 1-Parent Families

April 25, 1987|From The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — After Edna Barley pays her rent and buys groceries, she has $116 left each month to cover all other expenses for herself and her three daughters--two teen-agers and a toddler.

Barley gets a $441 welfare check and $211 worth of food stamps every month. Until recently, the assistance payment was only $344.

These startling numbers put Barley in a position shared by a growing number of single mothers--those who pay up to 75% of their income for rent. A 1986 study by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University reported that this group of women has risen from 17% to 34% of all single mothers in the past 12 years.

More households headed by women are spending more for housing because rents increased while inflation eroded the value of welfare benefits by more than one-third between 1970 and 1985, said Barbara Sard, an attorney with Greater Boston Legal Services. Sard represents the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless in a lawsuit against the state, asserting that welfare benefits are so low that recipients cannot afford housing.

'Intensely Poor' Women

Women supporting their families are more "intensely poor" than any others, with one-third of them in poverty, according to Sard. Another factor is the "economic discrimination" against women, she said. The Census Bureau reported this month that, on the average, women are paid only about 64% as much as men.

Before her welfare check was increased, Barley's $325 monthly rent at her two-bedroom apartment in Southwest Washington came to nearly three-quarters of her cash income, the method most often used for calculating rent burdens. Adding the value of her food stamps and taking into account the recent increase brings the burden down to 50%.

Using the generally accepted standard that a household should pay only one-fourth of its income for housing, poor families earning $5,000 a year should pay $125 a month for shelter. Using this gauge, Barley's rent should be only $163 a month, half of what she is paying.

Barley's rent includes utilities, but in high-rent Washington, she said she doesn't get a lot for her money.

"Winter after winter, there is no heat and no hot water. No one knows how it feels to come out of the cold into the cold," she said. The apartment building is "infested with roaches and mice."

She watches for sales and shops at discount food stores. "I try to buy unbranded things. . . . I look for bargain prices. I try to provide vegetables. I do pretty good with food," she said. But her family's laundry costs $2.50 a load and the children need clothes, school supplies and bus tokens.

"What I worry about most are the things the kids need besides food and a roof over their heads . . . and trying to put them in a decent environment and living conditions," she said.

Struggling to Stay Afloat

Barley has been struggling to keep afloat on welfare payments since 1983. She keeps trying because "if I give up, my kids will have to go through the same thing (exist on welfare). It's important for the kids to get a good education."

Without help from friends and relatives, she could not survive, Barley said. But that help sometimes threatens her eligibility for public assistance. Barley said a city social worker has told her that her payments will be stopped next month because she has an automobile, a resource she did not report. Barley is appealing the decision.

She was given the car by her brother, Barley said. She feels that she needs it for emergencies and to get to a job, which she hopes to find eventually. When she had a temporary job at National Airport, public transportation to and from work cost more than gas for the car would have cost, she said.

A District of Columbia Department of Human Services official said, "There is no blanket policy" on automobiles.

"A lot of things come into play," including the value of the car, according to the official, James Butz, head of income and maintenance services.

Barley, a high school graduate, said she has tried to find a full-time job paying enough to support her family but has been unsuccessful.

"The welfare department, in my opinion, is not set up to help mothers like me help themselves. They keep you just where you are," Barley said. If she loses her welfare benefits, she said, "I have no idea how I'll manage."

When the Reagan Administration began cutting welfare and housing assistance in the early 1980s, the White House said states should fill in the financial gap. Some did, but many states did not and the income of poor women dropped as their rents rose.

The MIT-Harvard study found that "the real market value of non-cash" benefits such as food stamps and Medicaid decreased by 4% between 1980 and 1983 while the number of recipients increased. The number of low-income Americans living in substandard housing also has risen sharply, according to the report.

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